SMITH, Bessie: Empty Bed Blues

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'Empty Bed Blues' Original Recordings 1927-1928

Bessie Smith, in her earliest recordings from1923-24, often had to overcome both the inferiortechnical quality of the recording equipment ofthe time and some indifferent accompaniment.

She was able to surmount those potentialobstacles through the power of her voice andeven her lesser recordings sound relevant andlively to today's listeners. By 1927 when she wasat the peak of her powers, both the recordingquality and the playing of her sidemen had vastlyimproved and the Empress Of The Blues wasrecording classic after classic, showing that nosinger during the era was on her level.

Bessie, who turned 33 in 1927, had alreadybeen working in show business for fifteen years.

She was born on 15 April 1894 in Chattanooga,Tennessee. Bessie grew up in poverty and was anorphan by the time she was ten. She often raisedmoney for her family by singing on street corners,accompanied by her brother on guitar. In 1912Bessie gained work as a dancer with the MosesStokes troupe, the traveling show that featuredthe first known blues singer, Ma Rainey.

Although her style owed little to that of the moreprimitive Rainey, she learned about selling a songto an audience from the older vocalist. Within acouple of years Bessie was on her way tobecoming a major attraction in the South as asinger whose passionate versions of blues couldvirtually hypnotize an audience. By 1919 she washeadlining her own shows and had becomefamous in the world of black vaudeville and tentshows.

The surprise success of Mamie Smith's 1920recording of \Crazy Blues" opened the door forclassic blues singers, many of whom werediscovered and rushed into studios by recordlabels eager to cash in on the new craze. BessieSmith had her turn on 16 February 1923 whenshe recorded Alberta Hunter's "Down HeartedBlues" (featured on Naxos Jazz Legends8.120660, Bessie Smith Volume 1). Thatrecording was such a hit that Bessie would bemaking records regularly for Columbia for thenext decade. The blues craze faded during 1924-25 but that had no effect on Smith's career forher recordings and live shows had made her amajor celebrity, particularly for a black woman inthe 1920s. Billed as "The Empress Of TheBlues," she headed her Harlem Frolics show andgenerally enjoyed her partying life.

Volume 4 in Naxos' series of the very bestBessie Smith recordings starts off with all fourtitles that she recorded on 2 March 1927 duringone of her finest record dates. Particularlyunusual is that none of the songs are bluesthough Muddy Water comes close. Backed byfive (and, on one song, six) of the top playersfrom the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra includingher favoured cornetist/trumpeter Joe Smith,Bessie sounds quite exuberant on these titles.

Alexander's Ragtime Band was already a vintagesong by 1927 but this is its definitive version.

Muddy Water is given a low-down treatmentwhile After You've Gone, a relatively new tune, isturned into a stirring blues by the Empressdespite not even being distantly related in itschords. There'll Be A Hot Time In The OldTown Tonight is quite celebratory and joyous, asif Bessie were celebrating both her career and herlifestyle. On these titles, she showed that shewas flexible enough to be a bluish singer ofstandards rather than just a blues singer.

The subject matter is much more sombre atthe 3 March session. Bessie Smith tells a judge ineloquent fashion that she deserves the ultimatepunishment on Send Me To The 'Lectric Chairwhile on Them's Graveyard Words (which couldbe the prelude to "'Lectric Chair") she relateshow she is very tempted to kill her lover. In bothcases, one ends up sympathizing with her.

Bessie Smith and pianist James P. Johnsonhad previously teamed up on a slightly earliersession that resulted in the classic "BackwaterBlues." A reunion date yielded Sweet Mistreaterand Lock And Key. The fact that Johnson, theinnovative stride pianist who largely founded thestyle, was not strictly a blues pianist ironicallycontributed to him being Bessie's perfect musicalmatch. Her bluish long tones contrast well withhis striding and they clearly inspired each otherevery time they recorded.

The Empress rarely ever used a tuba playeron her records; it only happened on threesessions. June Cole's playing on Foolish ManBlues is quite fluent and gives the song a strongthird voice along with cornetist Tommy Ladnierand the singer. Bessie is heard in prime form onThinking Blues and I Used To Be Your SweetMama while joined by a trio that includes herfavorite trombonist, the expressive Charlie Green.

These colourful blues style-wise could have beenrecorded by Bessie four years earlier but they stillsound fresh and timeless, particularly I Used ToBe Your Sweet Mama which has her fightingsuccessfully for her independence.

While clarinettists Ernest Elliott and BobFuller were erratic players, Bessie is so powerfulon I'd Rather Be Dead And Buried In My Gravethat one barely notices their presence.

Fortunately Charlie Green is back for the nextthree numbers; the obscure Standin' In The RainBlues, It Won't Be You (on which she againdeclares her independence) and the classic EmptyBed Blues. The latter piece, Bessie's only twosided78, is full of double-entendres from thesinger and witty asides and comments fromGreen, who sets the standard for blues tromboneplaying.

In 1928 vaudeville and the blues circuit wereboth in decline but Bessie Smith's careercontinued to flourish. At the height of her fameand performing in her own Mississippi Daysshow, Smith was still able to generate largecrowds. Please Help Me Get Him Off My Mind,with the forgotten but fine trombonist JoeWilliams in Green's spot, shows that Bessie stilldisplayed a lot of intensity in her delivery. Whilethe fearsome twosome of Fuller and Elliott donot help the final three numbers on thisprogram, Bessie is typically powerful onWashwoman's Blues, the atmospheric Devil'sGonna Get You and a swinging Yes Indeed HeDo which concludes the set on a happy note.

Bessie Smith's successes would continueuntil the Depression and a drastic change in thepublic's musical tastes put her through somelean years. The Alexander's Ragtime Bandsession gives hints as to her strategy of the mid-1930s when she reinvented herself as a balladand swing singer who infused her music withblues rather than sticking exclusively toperforming blues. The stage was set for a strongcomeback when she was tragically killed in a caraccident on 26 September 1937.

More than 65 years after her death, therehas never been a second Empress Of The Blues.

Scott Yanow

- author of seven jazz books including Swing, Bebop,Trumpet Kings and Jazz On Record 1917-76"
Disc: 1
Yes Indeed He Do
1 Alexander's Ragtime Band
2 Muddy Water
3 After You've Gone
4 There'll Be A Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight
5 Send Me To The 'Lectric Chair
6 Them's Graveyard Words
7 Sweet Mistreater
8 Lock And Key
9 Foolish Man Blues
10 Thinking Blues
11 I Used To Be Your Sweet Mama
12 I'd Rather Be Dead And Buried In My Grave
13 Standin' In The Rain Blues
14 It Won't Be You
15 Empty Bed Blues
16 Please Help Me Get Him Off My Mind
17 Washwoman's Blues
18 Devil's Gonna Get You
19 Yes Indeed He Do
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